Due to the great interest in this episode of “Global Nashville with Karl Dean” we are providing a transcript of the conversation with Ralph Schulz, CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
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Global Nashville with Karl Dean
A Conversation With Ralph Schulz
CEO, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce
PDF here and below
“Global Nashville with Karl Dean”
A Conversation with Ralph Schulz, CEO Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce
April 14, 2020
[Karl Dean] Welcome to our program.
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And now onto the program.
I’m pleased to welcome Ralph Schulz to Global Nashville. Ralph was named President and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce in November 2006 following a 30-year career in non-profit management, marketing, and fund raising.
In taking the position he accepted a leadership role at one of Middle Tennessee’s oldest and largest business federations, an organization dating back to its founding in 1847. Well, Ralph, welcome to the show and it’s great to see you.
[Ralph Schulz] Glad to be here. It’s great to be back in tandem with you, Karl.
We had some great growth in Nashville during your time as mayor and I think we shared a flood, and a recession, and a boom all in your eight years as mayor. So it’s great to be back with you.
[Karl Dean] Well, thank you.
Let me ask you this. Obviously for the past months we have been very much consumed with the pandemic, the response on a personal, civic, business basis. Prior to the occurrence of the pandemic, how was business in Nashville?
[Ralph Schulz] The business and the economy for this whole region was just exploding in a positive way.
We were one of the first cities in the country to come out of the recession and really for about almost ten years we’ve been seeing a meteoric rise in jobs, a meteoric rise in population, and so, just prior to the pandemic everything looked pretty rosy and with high momentum going forward into the future.
[Karl Dean] And so since the pandemic has become sort of our obsession at this point, how have things changed? How has the business community been affected by the coronavirus?
[Ralph Schulz] I think the business community like everyone else … I think most everyone is first concerned about their workforce, about their employees, about their health and well-being, and so as we’ve moved into this pandemic response I think we’ve seen businesses sort of set some of their business activity to the back and put the safety and health of their employees up front.
Now, essential businesses continue to do their work. We still can see very active construction sites around town, the financial community here which is expanding is continuing to do their work.
We see all those essential services continuing to deliver value. Retailers, grocery stores; logistics is a big part of our economy. So, we still see lots of economic activity in those categories.
I think additionally what we’re seeing as I think almost everywhere is seeing – businesses are figuring out a way to operate under these new circumstances, so if you can operate your business remotely it is happening. We see that kind of accelerating the employment of technology.
But there’s no question if you’re a small business or if you’re in the hospitality business you’re facing the biggest challenge of your business career at this moment. I think the community, both the public and our elected officials and the private community are doing what we can to support the survival of those businesses through this period.
[Karl Dean] What role has the Chamber taken during this crisis?
[Ralph Schulz] Typically what happens with us and of course having been through it with the flood and having been through it with the recession, and just immediately prior to the pandemic dealing with the tornado, typically what we’ll do, the first thing we’re trying to do, is assess what the needs of the business community and the community at large are and then provide information to those affected businesses that they can use to maintain their operations and their survival.
And then we start to change our business strategy and our business activity for the foreseeable future because we know that there are going to be continuing and evolving needs for business. Prior to the pandemic we had a shortage of workforce.
As we enter into the pandemic some businesses to survive it necessarily had to scale back on their workforce. So we are looking right now at how do we connect people to those essential jobs that are still functioning, and we’re looking out in the future if jobs are going to change as a result of this how do we prepare the workforce, the population in this region, to be able to do those jobs.
[Karl Dean] Is hospitality the hardest hit sector of the economy here?
[Ralph Schulz] Yeah, there’s no question travel and hospitality are the hardest hit sector. Hospitality is Nashville’s number two industry, just behind health care, and so almost instantly all the travel to Nashville ceased.
Lots of booked meetings, lots of leisure travel just ended in an instant. And so a lot of those businesses that are involved in hospitality are small businesses and they don’t usually have liquidity or cash flow capable of sustaining them over a long period. So a lot of employees had to be furloughed very quickly, layoffs occurred very quickly, and hospitality is where we’re seeing the biggest impact, but we’re also seeing a big impact in health care.
When the hospitals in particular had to empty to be able to handle the pandemic severe cases, a lot of the elective surgery activity and a lot of the other general health care activity had to take a back burner to maintain the capacity for these severe cases.
So, you’re seeing a couple of key Nashville industries that we’re known for globally take a hard hit in this current safe at home time.
[Karl Dean] Have business expansion, relocations – is that on hold or do things continue to move in that area?
[Ralph Schulz] The evidence we’re seeing right now is that the people who have business expansion plans are continuing to work those plans.
They’ve slowed the process down a bit, they’re a bit more cautious, but just last week alone we’ve got three RFIs from businesses that were interested in moving to Nashville.
We see a lot of interest from global tech companies in this Middle Tennessee mid-state region and even in the current time they’re continuing to ask us for information about locating here.
[Karl Dean] Has the federal response, which obviously has involved stimulus packages and money that will be flowing out from D.C. around the country, how has that been going? Do you have any sense of that?
[Ralph Schulz] It almost depends on who you’re talking to.
First of all, the existence of that package has been a life-preserver for lots of small businesses, especially the PPP grant program, the loan/grant programs.
People can get an indication pretty quickly if they’re going to qualify for that funding but the processing does take some time, and depending on the bank’s capability to handle those applications sometimes the process can be slower depending on the financial institution that you’re working with.
But we’re beginning to see signs. I talked yesterday to a business that had already received their approval and their deposit and that was helping them keep their business afloat right now.
[Karl Dean] Have you been connecting with other chambers around the country? Best practices or things that you’re learning that could help Nashville business?
[Ralph Schulz] Yeah, in fact we have a weekly call of the top 25 chambers in the country and every week we get together and we share what’s working and what’s happening.
The interesting thing about today’s call was the range of cities that are at different points in the process of the pandemic entering or exiting their cities. So to some extent I think Nashville is showing some hopeful signs of being able to maintain a shallow peak but we still have some of that peak ahead of us, and it’s kind of helpful for all the chambers to get together.
I would tell you that at the beginning of a discussion like this there are always lots of ideas, not all of which are very practical or even necessarily helpful. I think what we’re seeing now in those other cities are ideas on how to get protective gear, ideas on policy and regulation that can be altered to help companies come back.
Those are the kinds of big things that people are working for or working toward in addition to providing people information, what you can expect. The one last thing I’d mention there Karl is, I think we’ve entered a time where as we talk to businesses they’re most interested in their plan going forward.
I think they feel that they’ve done what they can do to modify or adapt to the situation. They’re really looking now for what’s the point in time that we can undertake the operations as they’re going to be going into the future, and how fast can we get back to fully productive.
[Karl Dean] Yeah. Do you have any sense … I guess the hot topic in the last few days is reopening the economy or getting things back to normal. Any plans on how that could unfold or what you think how that will play out?
[Ralph Schulz] I hear businesspeople – as the governor extended the time at home yesterday to the end of the month – I found businesspeople to be generally positively responsive to that and fully really expected it, but I think that they are hopeful that in May some form of a phased reopening of the economy can take place.
Almost every knowledgeable person that I’m talking to, including businesspeople, feel that there will need to be some sort of phasing to reopening the economy safely.
Sometimes that means providing remote work opportunity or safe working environments for at-risk categories like people who have an immune deficiency or are in an age group that is more prone to a severe case. In other cases, people are talking about voluntarily extending their remote work period until they feel they can have workspaces well prepared for a little more distant work.
So, I think most people are hopeful that some time in May they’ll be able to have the option of creating more work at their offices and their factories with guidance and criteria on how to do that safely, and I think they expect that work to return gradually over time.
[Karl Dean] I know one of the chamber’s main interests and yours is education. This has obviously had a tremendous impact on public schools, all schools, pre-K through 12 and then of course all the universities and colleges located here. How do you see that playing out?
[Ralph Schulz] That’s probably one of the most difficult issues to resolve is as you conclude this school year in a very abbreviated way, how do you make up that lost ground?
I know that all school officials, not just metro Nashville schools, but all school officials are working through different scenarios to help students reclaim that ground. Now, one thing that is somewhat beneficial is we are about to enter a testing period so a lot of content from the current year, the current school year had already been covered, and so to some extent that recovery will be made a little easier by the fact that we are about to enter that testing period and sort of the precursor work for the following year.
That’s time that’s going to have to be made up some way or another.
[Karl Dean] This is “Global Nashville” so one of our main interests is the global economy and Nashville’s role in it. I know the Chamber, you have staff who work on international issues and you have always been involved in reaching out to help develop Nashville’s economy on a worldwide basis. What has been the Chamber’s approach to international business?
[Ralph Schulz] Our approach to international business is that we have a global brand of music, creativity, and a very vibrant community, a community that’s very open and welcoming to virtually any population, any part of the world. And Karl, as you know because you encourage this diversity in our community, Nashville has been a place that people from all over the world have come to and stayed here.
So when you look at our economy and you see a lot of foreign direct investment that has come to us from Asia, a lot of trade that has developed, and foreign direct investment that has developed from Europe in particular, but Canada and Mexico as well, Nashville’s just got a great location, very stable state and local governments, and a population that is warm, engaging, and open, and welcoming.
So we continue to promote those assets and we continue to let people know that Nashville is open for business on an international basis and we see great success. There are the Bridgestones, the Nissans, the Alliance Bernsteins – all of these big businesses that are international in nature, they’re nested here, and we continue to encourage that.
[Karl Dean] In terms of the pandemic, how does that play out in terms of international business? Have you confronted any issues there?
[Ralph Schulz] No, but I do think that Nashville’s response to the pandemic throughout its population is one of those positive things that we’re going to be able to point toward. Part of Nashville’s calling card is the way it responds to disaster, the way the people of the community bind together and help each other through those times.
We find an awful lot that businesses that are looking to locate their business activity in Nashville and other places are looking for the compatability of the community. I love to tell the story about Alliance Bernstein, because typically businesses will want to know where’s their workforce coming from when they get here. Alliance Bernstein – it was a little bit different. The first question they asked us was can you set up meetings with 22 community cultural organizations so that we can understand really what the culture of the city is.
So from a pandemic perspective, I think Nashville continues to demonstrate the ability to adapt to a disaster together, help each other through it, and again as you experienced during your time coming out of the flood and coming out of the recession, I think we’re going to demonstrate once again that that compatibility and that mutual support is the basis for a rapid recovery.
[Karl Dean] Yeah I think one of the hallmarks of Nashville, obviously is, I think the cooperation that goes on through all sectors of the community, that people work together, and have a very optimistic and positive view of their city and the future which I think serves Nashville very, very well.
[Ralph Schulz] I agree, and look … I know I’m the Chamber guy. I just think that makes Nashville a special place. I’ve lived in 11 different cities and I’ve never been in a city that works together as well as this city does.
[Karl Dean] Yeah. So, you’ve seen a lot during your time as head of the Chamber and this has to be the biggest challenge you’ve confronted.
[Ralph Schulz] I think the biggest challenge … there’s a massive scale to this challenge, but remember Karl, as you were dealing with the flood, that flood had an economic impact equal to one year’s GDP in this city.
So, the recovery from the flood as rapidly as we recovered was no small task as well. Whether it’s a tornado, a flood, a recession, or a virus, tragedies are catastrophic for all of the people engaged in them.
When I see a tornado and I see it effect one part of the city, I remind myself that for a businessperson who’s lost their business that’s the biggest catastrophe of their lifetime.
[Karl Dean] Right.
[Ralph Schulz] So hopefully we can be helpful and supportive of our public officials and our businesses as they come back from this.
[Karl Dean] I guess the thing that strikes me about this comparing it to the flood is that it’s so much bigger. It involves the whole city, the whole state, the whole country, and there’s more unknowns.
You don’t know what’s going to happen necessarily next, you don’t know necessarily what you should be doing next, and all those things cast an uncertainty about things. I think of things like the CMA festival, which has been cancelled this year because of the pandemic. After the flood it was a month away. We had to get ready for it, tell people the city was open, be prepared, but the magnitude of this obviously doesn’t allow that to even happen and you’re just dealing with a much vaster array of problems than – it’s just hard to imagine.
[Ralph Schulz] As businesspeople are looking out in the future those unknowns as you say they’re compounded. Is this a virus that’s going to resurge next winter? Is this a virus that’s going to continue to affect us even after social distancing has done what it needed to do to flatten the curve?
In some ways it can be scary and in some ways it can be energizing, and it’s already creating innovation that probably wouldn’t have existed or wouldn’t have had the opportunity to exist if people hadn’t have had to confront this issue out of necessity.
So, you know, look events like this are never great things. But if necessity is the mother of invention, we’re right in the middle of that delivery right now.
[Karl Dean] Right, which leads me to my next question. One of the things that Nashville’s known for and you’ve worked hard on is entrepreneurship. We have the entrepreneur center because of health care and music and technology.
Nashville has benefited greatly from people who come here with a dream, whether it’s to write a song or start a new health care company or work on technology, it’s benefited our city.
How do you keep that spirit of optimism and entrepreneurship and belief in the future going?
[Ralph Schulz] I don’t think it’s a mistake. I think Nashville’s culture both attracts and generates those entrepreneurial people. They’re sort of drawn to the next big challenge. Their motivation to be creative, their motivation to be adaptive, their motivation to be enterprising is just innate within them, and Nashville has a tendency to draw those people.
Twenty four percent of our economy, our GDP in this region, is entrepreneurially driven, which is much higher than average in most cities.
So, they have a tendency to motivate themselves and see opportunity that the rest of us don’t see. I’ve been in a room with entrepreneurs and I know that as they look around that room, they see opportunity where I don’t.
So, I think the key for Nashville is to make sure that we continue to be a community that attracts and retains those creative people. But they’re driven themselves. There will be new enterprises to come out of this because entrepreneurs are here and thinking about it.
[Karl Dean] Right. And one of the things that Nashville is known for too, and I think it’s true of much of the U.S. economy, that small business is the backbone, and small business, as you mentioned earlier, is facing significant challenges and hopefully the Federal assistance and other things that could happen will help small business get through this. But do you see a role for the Chamber there?
[Ralph Schulz] Oh yeah. I see a role for the Chamber that is a lot about providing support and access to the kinds of resources that small business needs. As I was talking to a small business group the other day, everybody in that room knows that it’s going to be the innovation and the adaptability of that small business to make it through this crisis.
There can be access provided to financial resources that we and others can help with, but the reality is that those small businesses are both the largest part of our economy and the most fragile part of the economy under these circumstances.
In floods, 65% of the businesses that are flooded usually go out of business. In Nashville, 35% of the businesses affected went out of business.
That says that Nashville has the capability to adapt, but for a small business that was struggling before the pandemic, it’s going to be pretty tough to survive this timeframe.
I always like to be optimistic, but that’s just a reality. The optimistic part is Nashville small business owners usually find a way when others don’t.
[Karl Dean] How has it been to watch metro’s reaction to this event?
[Ralph Schulz] I think metro has done all of the responsible things it needed to do early, particularly the stay at home order. I think at that point in time a lot of people were uncertain whether it was necessary. I think it was responsible and significant for the Mayor and metro Nashville to say we need to go to a stay at home order.
I see every indication that the city is doing the most it can do to help business get back in operation as safely as possible, but I also say that the heart and soul of every business are the people that operate it. And it’s really important for people to be safe when they go back to work at their place of work.
[Karl Dean] Well I’ve certainly been impressed by Mayor Cooper’s approach. And I think you’re right, doing the stay at home order early was important, and the city has a lot to be proud of I think in this situation. How are you personally doing with the situation?
[Ralph Schulz] We’re doing well. I’m more familiar with technology than I’ve ever been before. I was so proud when I convened my first Webex meeting.
But yeah, I just have to say I’m very proud of the Chamber’s staff. We put a real value, despite the fact like every small business we’re going to suffer a revenue impact. We’ve been able to maintain our staff. They’ve been able to adjust to the new circumstances. They’re out there delivering value, and I’m really proud to be part of an organization that has so much leadership in our ranks.
[Karl Dean] Well the Chamber I’ve always felt has done a great job for the city, and I certainly during my time as Mayor appreciated you, and I still appreciate you.
Do you have any last thoughts or anything you’d like to say?
[Ralph Schulz] The only last thoughts I’d really like to say is that Nashville is well-positioned to exceed expectations coming out of this crisis as well, and I think that you personally were a big part of establishing that personality in this city that has led to our momentum.
I think that momentum’s going to continue. I think we’re going to exceed expectation once again. I have a lot of faith in Nashville and its people.
[Karl Dean] I agree. I think – I’ve said it more than a few times – Nashville’s best days are still ahead of it, and I still believe that. We’ll get through this.
[Ralph Schulz] Karl, I almost said that out loud and decided it really sounded better coming from you.
[Karl Dean] Well, thank you for taking the time.
Let me say this is it for this edition of “Global Nashville,” and we hope you’ll find this program and other World Affairs Council online events to be interesting and fulfilling.
I’d like to once more invite our friends in the business community to become a sponsor of the program. The World Affairs Council is a non-partisan educational organization that delivers important programs on global affairs and is worthy of your support.
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I’m Karl Dean, and this has been “Global Nashville.”
Karl Dean | Welcome to the new Global Nashville.
A Conversation with Ralph Schulz
CEO Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce
April 14, 2020
In this episode Karl Dean, former Nashville Mayor, talks with Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Ralph Schulz about the business environment in Nashville during this time of pandemic. What sectors are impacted the most and in what ways? How has the global economy and business relocations that are important to the region be affected? How are Nashville businesses and Nashvillians looking at the prospects for recovery?
We invite you to listen to this Webinar and join us for future editions of “Global Nashville with Karl Dean” — check TNWAC.org/calendar for Webinar schedules.
00:01 Welcome / Introduction — Invitation to friends in the business community to sponsor “Global Nashville with Karl Dean.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
02:30 Prior to pandemic how was business in Nashville?
03:36 How has the business community been affected by the pandemic?
05:35 What role has the Nashville Chamber had dealing with these circumstances?
07:04 Is hospitality the hardest hit sector in the pandemic?
08:10 Healthcare sector impact.
08:46 Tell us about business expansions and relocations.
09:18 Interest on the part of global tech in Nashville.
09:30 How is the Federal response, money flow from Washington?
09:59 PPP and other programs have been life preservers for some businesses.
10:33 What connections have you had with other chambers? Best practices?
11:02 Today’s chambers’ call – interesting range of cities, where they are in the pandemic.
11:55 People are working toward the ‘things’ that will help companies come back.
12:13 Businesses most interested in their plan going forward, adaptation to the current situation is done. How fast can we get back to being fully productive?
12:48 Hot topic is reopening, getting back to “normal.” How will that play out?
13:29 Some sort of “phasing” will be necessary to return to “normal.”
14:30 Education is a major focus of the Chamber; how do you see school situation?
16:09 Global economy and Nashville: what has the Chamber’s approach been?
18:15 How has the pandemic impacted the global economic sector?
18:42 Nashville’s “calling card” is how it responds to adversity.
19:18 Alliance Bernstein an example of business approach to Nashville culture.
19:48 Like coming out of the flood and recession Nashville will demonstrate how to bounce back.
20:15 Optimism makes Nashville a special place.
20:40 Is the pandemic the biggest challenge you’ve faced at the Chamber?
21:08 The recovery from the flood was “no small task” either.
21:50 Hopefully we can be helpful and supportive of businesses and the public sector.
22:20 More “unknowns” and “uncertainty” in the pandemic recovery – vast array of problems.
23:10 Unknowns are compounded by progression of the virus. Scary in some ways, energizing in some other ways. Confronting issue out of necessity.
23:59 Entrepreneurship. Nashville has benefited greatly. How do you keep that spirit of optimism in entrepreneurship going?
24:46 Entrepreneurs in Nashville are drawn to the next big challenge.
25:00 24% of economy in the region is driven by entrepreneurship.
25:33 Key for Nashville is to be a community to attract and retain creative people.
25:55 New enterprises will come out of the crisis because entrepreneurs are here.
26:20 Do you see a role for the Chamber in support to small businesses.
26:42 Small businesses are the largest and most fragile part of the economy under these circumstances.
27:22 Nashville has the ability to adapt, but small businesses have a tough outlook, but Nashville small business owners usually find a way when others don’t
27:49 What about Metro’s response?
28:53 City has a lot to be proud of.
29:13 Proud of Chamber’s staff. Adjusting to new circumstances. Delivering value.
29:57 Last thoughts? Nashville is “well positioned to exceed expectations” coming out of this crisis. You, Mayor Dean, were personally a big part of establishing that personality for Nashville that has led to our momentum. A lot of faith in Nashville and its people.
30:50 Nashville’s best days are ahead.
31:07 Invitation to friends in the business community to sponsor “Global Nashville with Karl Dean.” Contact email@example.com
About Ralph Schulz
Ralph Schulz was named president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce by the Chamber’s board of directors in November 2006, following a 30-year career in nonprofit management, marketing and fundraising. In taking the position, he accepted a leadership role at one of Middle Tennessee’s oldest and largest business federations, an organization dating back to its founding in 1847.
During his tenure, the Chamber has played a key role in helping the region emerge from the 2007 recession to a period of unprecedented growth with a business relocation and expansion strategy known as Partnership 2020. Additionally, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce was the lead organization in the creation of the nationally recognized Nashville Entrepreneur Center and the passage of a public referendum supporting construction of the Music City Center convention facility. Since Schulz has taken on the role of president and CEO, the Chamber has also led the movement to improve public school performance through the creation of the Academies of Nashville, established the Moving Forward initiative to ensure the creation of a regional transportation solution through a cohesive community effort and developed into a respected publisher of data on the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area with the annual publication of the Vital Signs report.
In 2009, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce was named “Chamber of the Year” by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE), recognizing the Nashville Chamber’s organizational excellence, service to members, development of leaders and volunteers and its impact on key community priorities. The ACCE award referenced the Nashville Chamber’s role in the creation of Nashville for All of Us,a campaign made up of community leaders aligned to defeat a 2009 charter referendum which would have prohibited Nashville city government from conducting business in a language other than English. The Chamber was also praised for its creation of A Leading Edge, a broad range of programs aimed at helping Chamber members navigate the turbulent waters of the recession.
- Executive Producer: Hon. Karl Dean
- Co-Host/Senior Producer: Patrick Ryan
- Technical Advisor: Bill Ryan
- Voice of Global Tennessee (and the Penn Jones Conspiracy Band): Ben Olson
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